In Elgar's dramatic oratorio The Dream of Gerontius there's a magnificent setting of what we know as the hymn "Praise to the Holiest". In the middle there's a section where the phrase, "O generous love", is echoed by the different voices in counterpoint.
I've been haunted by that phrase since writing the blog post To my friends , because it seems to me that in the two words, generous love, there lies the key to understanding what makes for good love. Although I am writing from within the Christian tradition, I hope that, whether you are of one faith or of none, you'll read through to my conclusion, which if it's right applies universally!
"O generous love! that He who smote
In man for man the foe,
The double agony in man
For man should undergo;
And in the garden secretly,
And on the cross on high,
Should teach His brethren and inspire
To suffer and to die."
John Henry Newman’s poem in which generous love appears is clearly speaking about the self-sacrificial love (agapé) of the cross. "God is crucified - my Friend died - in some way, for me" (Justin Welby in his preface to Graham Tomlin's Looking through the Cross). However it could as well be a test for all other kinds of love, including sexual love (eros). In the often misinterpreted discussion of marital relations, husbands are told, "Love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her" (Ephesians 5.25).
Self-giving is the essence of every love. "Love one another as I have loved you." "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his love for his friends." "Love does not insist on its own way."
The Song of Solomon is the Bible's great love poem. It is a passionate dialogue in which the two lovers are totally absorbed in the other. "My beloved is mine, and I am his". "Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits." "Turn away your eyes from me, for they overwhelm me". "My dove, my perfect one, is the only one for me". The lovers seek only each other's good and pleasure. They are utterly uninterested in themselves, only their beloved. It's a high ideal of love. It's a world away from the contemporary cultivation of self-gratification, which is an inversion of love. That is, of course, self-love.
No one is entirely free of self-love, especially in the realm of sexual relationship. It makes no difference; whether heterosexual or homosexual, there is a tendency to seek satisfaction for oneself. I'm reminded of James' vivid analysis of the causes of conflict and violence ("You desire and do not have, so you murder"). Rape is a perverted form of self-gratification which has no regard for the other. It is the extreme negation of love in what was intended as the ultimate expression of love. Instead of being good, it is evil. Instead of being a creative act, it is a destructive one.
Creation in a sexual act is not confined to procreation. It is also the affirmation of the other as a person, imago Dei, in the image of God. It acknowledges their otherness. It asserts their beauty. As it used to say in the Marriage Service, it is an act of worship ("With my body I thee worship").
The test for everyone in a sexual relationship is, "Is your love generous?" In other words, at heart is it self-giving, not self-seeking? Is your desire not your own satisfaction, but the pleasure and satisfaction of the other? Do you surrender to your partner's wish, or do you insist on your own way?
And the ultimate test is, are you committed enough to give your life for the one you love? Will you stick with them whatever happens and whatever it costs until death separates you?
No one is entirely free of self-love. No one is perfect. However it seems to me that the nature of the love at the heart of our relationships, its generosity, is more important than the nature of our sexual orientation. Generous love is not a temporary madness; it is the greatest of divine gifts.